Summer Reading Series: Teaching to Transgress

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

This is the fifth entry in our dialogic pedagogy summer reading series. For more on the series and a full list of texts, see here.

Title: Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (published in 1994; $45; available for purchase HERE).

Author: bell hooks

Context of Creation: The author, a Black feminist teacher and scholar, wrote this book of essays during a period of sabbatical, her first in 20 years of teaching in a college classroom. hooks is currently Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, which also hosts the bell hooks Institute. At the time of writing, she was Distinguished Professor of English at City College in New York.

Context of Reception: I read Teaching to Transgress over the course of two days at my home in Austin. It is one of those texts I’ve known about for a long time and was embarrassed to admit I hadn’t yet read, as someone supposedly invested in liberatory and radical pedagogies. In the process of reading hooks, I had to confront myself repeatedly — to pause, close the book, and think honestly and critically about myself as a White woman, feminist, and scholar. At the same time, I also found myself over and over again as a teacher, and felt a really profound joy at having so many of my own pedagogical values and experiences reflected back to me in such strong and affirming language. That discomfort and that joy did not dilute each other or cancel each other out; if anything, they reinforced one another, allowing me to access deeper levels of both discomfort and joy.

Overview of Structure and Content: Teaching to Transgress contains an introduction and 14 essays. hooks includes a great deal of personal narrative about her own practice as a teacher in classrooms that have become increasingly more diverse over the course of her career as well as her experiences and observations as a Black female student and scholar from a rural, working class, Southern background, who experienced the racial integration of schools. Some of the topics she addresses (always through a lens of race and gender) include engaged pedagogy; multicultural education and diversity; the authority of experience in the classroom; feminist solidarity, thinking, and scholarship; affect in the classroom (specifically joy, pain, and eros); and issues of class and language. hooks writes that she had initially imagined the book as being primarily for teachers, but that — after a humbling experience with a course she felt she was unable to make work as a learning community — she came to understand that the book was also for students, who also bear a responsibility in co-creating the learning environment (9).

Three Thought-Starters for Teachers

  1. Pleasure

Teaching to Transgress is anchored by joy, with both the introduction and the final essay, “Ecstasy: Teaching and Learning without Limits,” structured around this idea. In fact, to value and encourage pleasure in learning and teaching is the first form of “transgression” that hooks describes, and the first one she embraced in her own teaching: “To enter classroom settings in colleges and universities with the will to share the desire to encourage excitement, was to transgress” (7). Her interlocutor in the essay “Building a Teaching Community,” Ron Scapp, explains the transgression of joy simply: “Pleasure in the classroom is feared. If there is laughter, a reciprocal exchange may be taking place,” directly challenging a top-down, hierarchical educational paradigm in which the professor exists only to impart knowledge, never to learn with and from students (145). And regarding the pleasure of mutual love, hooks writes, “Well-learned distinctions between public and private make us believe that love has no place in the classroom. . . . Teachers who love students and are loved by them are still ‘suspect’ in the academy” (198).

  • How often do you experience pleasure, joy, or love in the classroom?
  • How often do you believe your students experience pleasure, joy, or love when they are in your classroom?
  • What enables and/or impedes pleasure, joy, and love in your teaching practice?

2.  Pain

However, the road hooks takes to circle back to pleasure in Teaching to Transgress is full of pain. Even as hooks insists that the classroom can and should be a space in which students experience healing from harm, she acknowledges that excitement and joy in the classroom are not always immediately accessible: “I learned to respect that shifting paradigms or sharing knowledge in new ways challenges; it takes time for students to experience that change as positive” (“Embracing Change,” 42). The inevitability of discomfort and struggle in the learning and teaching process, to and through the point of real pain, is emphasized again and again: hooks talks about the “anguish” of having to confront Paulo Freire’s sexism in the midst of her deep excitement over his ideas (“Paulo Freire,” 49), the “will to struggle” that is necessary for real change (“Building a Teaching Community,” 143), and the value of theorizing from a location of pain (“Theory as Liberatory Practice,” 74).

Ron Scapp offers, “Sometimes it’s necessary to remind students and colleagues that pain and painful situations don’t necessarily translate into harm. . . . Not all pain is harm, and not all pleasure is good” (“Building a Teaching Community,” 154). And hooks reminds us dissatisfaction or thirstiness is in itself a value: Sometimes, she writes of herself and her students, “we are just there collectively grasping, feeling the limitations of knowledge, longing together, yearning for a way to reach that highest point. Even this yearning is a way to know” (“Essentialism and Experience,” 92).

  • How can we help students distinguish between pain-as-harm and pain-as-discomfort, or as a necessary condition of growth?
  • How do you personally distinguish between the two?
  • What is the value of yearning? How do you work to create (or allow) yearning in your students? Yourself?

3. Praxis 

hooks introduces early on the critical question educators must ask themselves over and over: “What values and habits of being reflect my/our commitment to freedom?” (“A Revolution of Values,” 27). This focus on integrated praxis and full engagement, including attention to mind, body, and spirit as inseparable, reverberates through all the essays in Teaching to Transgress. hooks identifies the following as the central problem in achieving real transformation: “I know so many professors who are progressive in their politics, who have been willing to change their curriculum, but who in fact have resolutely refused to change the nature of their pedagogical practice. . . . Professors may attempt to deconstruct traditional biases while sharing that information through body posture, tone, word choice, and so on that perpetuate those very hierarchies and biases they are critiquing” (“Building a Teaching Community,” 140-41).

To connect this idea to the previous two, we might consider a salient example of this failure, which might simultaneously be interpreted as an investment in a superficial, sanitized form of “pleasure” in the classroom. This would be what hooks describes as “the comforting ‘melting pot’ idea of cultural diversity, the rainbow coalition where we would all be grouped together in our difference, but everyone wearing the same have-a-nice-day smile. This was the stuff of colonizing fantasy” (“A Revolution of Values,” 30-31). To invest in “feel-good” fantasies of this nature — including the fantasy of a classroom of content and satisfied learners, whatever their identities, reflecting back exactly the progressive ideas we have endeavored to impress upon them — is to reinforce in practice the structures of domination we work to deconstruct in theory and vote against in policy. And at the same time, and thinking back to Chris Adamo’s chapter in Teaching Through Challenges to EDI from last week’s reading, proclamations on the part of the instructor that the classroom is inclusive and welcoming might indeed be backed up by a carefully curated syllabus of diverse texts, only to be undone by the way they actually interact with students.

  • Visualize yourself in the classroom. Where are you usually standing or sitting? How often do you change that location? What do you think your location and movement within the classroom might communicate to students?
  • Imagine your own professors in college. In whose class did you feel engaged and welcome and affirmed, and in whose class did you feel unseen, unwelcome, or disengaged? How did each of those professors move, speak, and act in the classroom?

Two Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation: 

The Authority of Experience, without Essentialism

In “Essentialism and Experience,” hooks critiques the feminist scholar Diana Fuss’s problematization of essentialism in the classroom, in which (according to Fuss) individual students use the “authority of experience” to promote essentializing characterizations of the groups they represent and silence students of other groups. hooks acknowledges this as a problem, but reminds us that “systems of domination already at work in the academy and the classroom silence the voices of individuals from marginalized groups and give space only when on the basis of experience it is demanded” (81). That is, often the only valuable form of knowledge that minority or marginalized students are believed to be able to offer is experiential, and Fuss, according to hooks, fails to acknowledge this reality.

“If I do not wish to see these students use the ‘authority of experience’ as a means of asserting voice, I can circumvent this possible misuse of power by bringing to the classroom pedagogical strategies that affirm their presence, their right to speak, in multiple ways on diverse topics. This pedagogical strategy is rooted in the assumption that we all bring to the classroom experiential knowledge. . . . If experience is already invoked in the classroom as a way of knowing that coexists in a nonhierarchical way with other ways of knowing, then it lessens the possibility that it can be used to silence” (84).

hooks describes one such strategy as follows: she assigns all students to write an autobiographical paragraph regarding a personal experience with the topic at hand (for example, she asks them to write about an early experience with race when teaching Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye). Students then go one-by-one to read that paragraph aloud to the class.

Another strategy is to attend to language, and to invite and affirm the use of “nonstandard” or marginalized forms of English and other languages in the classroom. If you are yourself a native speaker of a marginalized variety of English and/or another language, you can also choose to model its use (and be honest about whatever discomfort that might bring to you, if you like). And if and when students use non-English languages and non-dominant language varieties with which you are not familiar, you can also model embracing the discomfort of not understanding. “I suggest,” hooks write, “that we do not necessarily need to ‘master’ or conquer the narrative as a whole, that we may know in fragments. I suggest that we may learn from spaces of silence as well as spaces of speech, that in the patient act of listening to another tongue we may subvert that culture of capitalist frenzy and consumption that demands all desire must be satisfied immediately, or we may disrupt that cultural imperialism that suggests one is worthy of being heard only if one speaks in standard English” (“Language,” 174).

Model Dialogue across Difference with Other Faculty

The tenth essay in Teaching to Transgress presents a dialogue between hooks and Ron Scapp, a White, male professor of philosophy. In her introduction to their conversation, hooks explains, “It is fashionable these days, when ‘difference’ is a hot topic in progressive circles, to talk about ‘hybridity’ and ‘border crossing,’ but we often have no concrete examples of individuals who actually occupy different locations within structures, sharing ideas with one another, mapping out terrains of commonality, connection, and shared concern with teaching practices” (129-30). hooks emphasizes dialogue as a simple (if not always easy) way to cross those boundaries.

This is precisely what our Difficult Dialogues faculty learning community endeavors to do, but I am inspired by the way in which hooks makes her dialogue with Scapp publicly available “to provide a model of possibility” (131). I wonder about inviting a willing colleague into my classroom, someone who teaches something very different from what I teach, who comes from a very different intersection of identities than I do, and/or who teaches very differently from how I do, and allowing students to observe and respond to our conversation. Or recording such a conversation on video, as hooks does in writing, and bringing it to the classroom.

One In-Depth Activity:

A Dialogue with the Self

hooks emphasizes the need for self-actualization in Teaching to Transgress, and one of the most intriguing essays, to me, was “Paulo Freire,” in which hooks interrogates herself regarding her relationship to Freire’s pedagogy, scholarship, and voice. She addresses herself, in a simple Q&A interview format, exactly as a “real” interviewer would, pushing herself to discuss her first reactions to Freire, links between her work and Freire’s ideas in specific contexts, the impact of her identities on her ability to relate to his work, and more. I love the notion of asking students to engage in critical, reflective dialogue with themselves, early on in the semester, as a way to put them in touch with their own voices and values, teach dialogue skills like inquiry and deep listening, and foster compassion and appreciation for the contradictions everyone has by critically self-reflecting. Thus, the activity linked above asks students to craft a dialogue with the self, in which they interview themselves regarding core qualities, passions, values, or identities, focusing on apparent tensions or contradictions. I think this activity would be most useful if students were able to see at least an excerpt of hooks’s essay and/or the instructor’s own version of the assignment.

Next Week . . .

We will be reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (2019).












Summer Reading Series: Teaching Through Challenges to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

This is the fourth entry in our dialogic pedagogy summer reading series. For more on the series and a full list of texts, see here

Title: Teaching through Challenges for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) (published in 2020; $25; available for purchase HERE)

Authors: Stephanie L. Burrell Storms, Sarah K. Donovan, and Theodora P. Williams

Context of Creation: This edited volume arises out of conversations begun at a Faculty Resource Network seminar on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) at NYU in 2016. The three authors take a practical, strategy-based approach that openly addresses various challenges for EDI in the classroom, rather than offer idealistic visions that might otherwise feel impossible to attain. Burrell Storm is an associate dean and associate professor of multicultural education at Fairfield University and the Region 1 Director for the National Association of Multicultural Education. Donovan is professor of philosophy at Wagner College and faculty coordinator of the First Year Program. Williams is associate professor emerita of human resource management at Marygrove College. The book has a companion text, Breaking Down Silos for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Teaching and Collaboration across Disciplines (2020), also by Burrell Storms, Donovan, and Williams. 

Context of Reception: I read the book over the course of a day in my house in Austin, in spurts during and between regular life, and I found it affirming, encouraging, and thought-provoking! 

Overview of Structure and Content: Following a preface and introduction by the three authors, the book is organized into six parts according to theme: Respect for Divergent Learning Styles, Inclusion and Exclusion, Technology and Social Action, Affective Considerations, Reflection for Critical Consciousness, and Safe Spaces and Resistance. Each part contains 2-3 chapters written by 20 interdisciplinary contributors, including an early elementary librarian, a business professional, and practicing family therapists in addition to academics from departments of education, philosophy, English, nursing, and psychology. 

Three Thought-Starters for Teachers

  1. Integrating Literary Texts and Primary Sources as an EDI Measure across the Curriculum

A number of the contributors to this volume mentioned pulling in literary texts–whether poetry, personal narrative, memoir, diary, and other forms of life-writing; short stories; or excerpts from novels–as well as other primary sources, such as oral histories, land treaties, political manifestos, and blogs, as a way to counterbalance instructional materials and discourses in any discipline that are exclusionary of marginalized voices (at best) or perpetuate stereotypes and other harmful constructions of non-dominant peoples (at worst). 

For example, Hyun Uk Kim, in “Placing (dis)Ability Front and Center in EDI Studies,” writes, “In an introductory special education course, one strategy to challenge the [dominant] deficit model [of disability] is for students to read a book written by a person with a disability label” (8). In “Teaching Indigenous Sovereignty in Multicultural America,” Danica Sterud Miller provides a lesson plan for teaching the 1969 Proclamation of Alcatraz, authored by the Indians of All Tribes, in a wide variety of possible courses (29-32). In “Disturbing Voices: Literacy in the Archive and the Community,” Betsy Bowen describes how in an English class on language and literacy (not literature), she had students read a range of poems and personal narratives dealing with linguistic marginalization (for example, Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”) as well as explore oral histories collected from formerly enslaved people in the early twentieth century (56-57). 

Collectively these educators suggest that, when so much classroom instructional material represents a privileged, dominant viewpoint (middle class, White, male, Christian, Western, cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled), primary texts related to the course content in some way and written by members of non-dominant groups become not just an engaging supplement to “core” or “main” instructional texts but a crucial component. 

  • What is your reaction to this idea? 
  • Thinking of a particular course, whose voices are missing from among your course readings? Where might you go to find those voices? 
  • How do literary and other primary texts support dialogue? 
  1. Inclusion and Exclusion

The two chapters in Part II deal with the tensions between inclusion and exclusion. In “Teaching Indigenous Sovereignty in Multicultural America,” Danica Sterud Miller makes the point that multiculturalist discourse, with its emphasis on a democratic ideal of equality and belonging, often performs Indigenous erasure by failing to honor American Indians’ long struggle for sovereignty; that is, tribal separateness from the nation. “Inclusivity,” she writes, “includes peoples, especially Indigenous peoples, who may or may not want to be included” (33). 

Meanwhile, in “The Paradox of Inclusion and Exclusion,” Samira Garcia, Tabitha McCoy, and Hoa Nguyen write, “Educators must distinguish between including a person (as a sentient being) while simultaneously excluding oppressive dialogue. . . . It is important for both educators and classmates to realize that worldviews can evolve, given sufficient space for reflection. This means that as each participating person in the classroom brings forth their ideas and notions, those listening should remain genuinely curious about how these make sense given the speaker’s context. The absence of curiosity leads to opposition and defensiveness. It also leads to the totalizing of identities based on specific utterances” (42). 

  • What do these ideas, individually or together, mean for the cultivation of a class community? Who, or what, must be included, and who, or what, must be excluded (or allowed to remain separate)? 
  • Curiosity and imagination seem to be vital concepts here — how, then, might the inclusion of literary and other primary texts, including oral texts and video, help students develop curiosity and strengthen imagination? 
  1. “Safe” Space  

The final chapter of the book, “Curricular ‘Safe Spaces’: Clarifying Potential Misconceptions,” deals with the contingency and contextuality of the classroom as “safe space.” There are myriad different understandings of what “safe” means (i.e. does “safety” in a classroom setting mean freedom from tension, discomfort, or being challenged, or does it mean swift denunciation of hate speech and fair warning regarding materials likely to trigger students who have experienced trauma?). These different understandings tend to privilege the “safety” of different groups. Adamo historicizes the campus or extracurricular “safe space,” explicating its roots in zones designated as “safe” for LGBTQ+ students by administrators, instructors, and fellow students — which, they point out, are not universally “safe” spaces but rather aimed at providing safety to a specific population of students. 

In contrast, Adamo argues, the curricular or classroom safe space “must be maximally safe for everyone — all identities and all viewpoints” (124). It “does not limit what can be said but rather encourages reflection and empathy with regards to how something is said” — including helping students self-reflect and learn to recognize the difference between safety and comfort, between speech that is harmful and silencing versus speech that is challenging. “Most importantly,” Adamo writes, “instructors declaring their classroom a ‘safe space’ does not necessarily make it so. Each student is the judge as to whether their classroom space is ‘safe’ for them to express their personal experiences and perspectives” (122).  

  • How do you define “safety” in the classroom? How, and for whom, do you work to make the classroom safe? How do you know whether or not students are experiencing safety in your classroom? 
  • To what extent do you agree or disagree with Adamo’s assertions? 
  • How do Adamo’s thoughts relate to other contributors’ thoughts, above, about integrating literary/primary texts and inclusion/exclusion? That is, how might seeking to include more voices through primary texts contribute to (or disrupt) safety? What does the inclusion/exclusion paradox imply about safety? 

Two Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation

Relational Spaces 

In “Transforming Fear into Courage: EDI and Compassion-Based Learning,” Jacqueline Wong and Carla Hilario argue that “it is impossible to create an absolutely ‘safe’ space for co-learners.” They suggest instead the “co-construct[ion of] a ‘relational space’ that acknowledges the lived experiences of all co-learners and also the structural contexts of these lived experiences.” They advocate for three basic strategies to create a relational space: 

  • collectively creating a set of guiding principles as a class; 
  • beginning each class with a land acknowledgement in order to ground each session in awareness of history and the individual and collective responsibility of all participants to remain aware and active; 
  • and engaging in mindfulness exercises at the beginning of each class as well as after intense and emotional discussions (86). 

Mindfulness Practices 

The importance of self-reflection, critical consciousness, and a sense of connectedness to others in the classroom space is stressed over and over by different contributors throughout Teaching Through Challenges to EDI. Mindfulness practice is suggested multiple times as a means by which all three of these concepts can be supported. In “Know Thyself: Implicit Bias and Mindfulness,” Paula Gill Lopez defines “mindfulness” as “bringing nonjudgmental focused attention to whatever is being experience in the present moment” and suggests that mindfulness practices help to reduce the unconscious habits of privilege, including biases, prejudices, and response patterns, by defusing the brain’s conditioned response of fear or distrust of the other and helping to establish new neural pathways of “self-awareness, self-regulation, and compassion” (76). 

This would suggest, too, that mindfulness can help counteract shame for both instructors and students, which works as a “silent enforcer” of privilege and oppression by causing people in privileged positions to shut down or become angry and defensive, preventing them from dealing meaningfully with their biases. Meanwhile, people in less privileged positions frequently experience internalized oppression as shame, as Kyle Forrest and Peter Thompson explain in their chapter (67). 

Gill Lopez suggests three possible mindfulness practices that instructors can use in class (as well as on their own, in preparation for a class dialogue or student or colleague interaction they anticipate will be tough): 

  • Instruct students to pay attention to an “anchor” — their breathing, bodily sensations, sounds in the room, etc — for one to three minutes. 
  • Listen to a guided meditation. UCLA Health provides a number of guided meditations in 10 different languages, ranging from 3 minutes to almost 20 minutes, with a number of different focuses. Gill Lopez particularly recommends loving kindness meditation because of its focus on acceptance and love (78). 
  • Have students participate in “contemplative dyads” in class, in which they take turns in partners listening actively (but not responding) to each other telling stories. Sample prompts include: 
    • Name one stressor and one thing you do daily to relieve stress.
    • Share your biggest challenge in this class. 
    • Share a high and a low from this week. 

One In-Depth Activity

Don’t Let the Fascists Speak: A Dialogue on Speech, Silence, and Safety

This is a lesson plan for a classroom dialogue using Pat Parker’s poem, “Don’t Let the Fascists Speak,” which appears as the first poem in Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color (ed. Christopher Soto, 2018). This could be used at the beginning of the semester to initiate conversations around guiding principles and purposes of dialogue in the course. It could also be used as a follow-up activity after a particularly tense dialogue at any point in the semester. It weaves together several of the core ideas from Teaching Through Challenges to EDI

  • Including a literary text written by a member of a group, or in this case, several groups, whose voices and experiences are frequently underrepresented, marginalized, or disregarded in educational contexts (Black, lesbian, and female) 
  • Being transparent with students about pedagogical choices and inviting them to assess and give feedback on those choices
  • Including students in the co-creation of the learning experience; in this case, a discussion around “safe spaces” may be used to help students (re)define guiding principles for their interactions with one another, or reflect on their own boundaries and needs within the classroom so they can determine how best to protect themselves and what their own personal standards for compassionate engagement are
  • Mindfulness practices to help students connect to self, environment, and other

Next Week . . . 

We will be reading Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks (1994). 

Summer Reading Series: Creating Space for Democracy

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

This is the third entry in our dialogic pedagogy summer reading series. For more on the series and a full list of texts, see here

Title: Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (published in 2019; $37; available for purchase here)

Editors: Nicholas V. Longo and Timothy J. Shaffer 

Context of Creation: This is an edited volume containing contributions from 45 educators, including the two editors. Longo is a professor of global studies and public and community service at Providence College; Shaffer is an assistant professor of Communication Studies at Kansas State University. The book grows out of the authors’ prior work and collaborations related to what they have termed “deliberative pedagogy,” an education process that includes authentic and constructive dialogue as a key component in preparing students to encounter diverse perspectives and make informed choices as citizens (broadly, not legally, defined) in a democracy. 

Context of Reception: I haven’t yet finished this book. I work only quarter-time as Difficult Dialogues Program Coordinator, and nearly half of my hours for the week had already been absorbed by responses and deliberations related to the previous post in this series before I started work on this week’s reading and blog post. I share this in order to enact two gestures I consider important. The first is to make labor and its constraints more visible, and thereby resist the often unspoken but strongly felt expectation in the academy for uniform and steady production regardless of external stressors or unforeseen impediments (though I want to make clear that this is not an expectation of the Humanities Institute in particular, which functions incredibly humanely, in my experience!). The second is to demonstrate the necessity that so often comes up in dialogue and dialogic processes to slow down: circle back, rethink, hear new responses, and adjust course. Thus, I read the introduction and initial, framing chapter of Creating Space for Democracy, then decided to focus (for now) on Part II of the book as the section I thought might be most immediately useful for myself and others. I will be continuing to work my way through the rest of the text as I can. 

Overview of Structure and Content 

Following an introduction and a framing chapter written by the editors entitled “Discussing Democracy: Learning to Talk Together,” Creating Space for Democracy is organized into five thematic parts containing chapters written by contributors. Part I, “Concepts and Theories,” offers three chapters of different conceptual frameworks. Part II, “Methods of Dialogue and Deliberation,” contains seven chapters, in each of which a different model for dialogue is presented by representatives from seven different dialogue-driven organizations. Part III, “Dialogue and Deliberation in the Curriculum,” provides four chapters in which contributors describe and reflect on efforts to integrate dialogue and deliberation at their respective higher ed institutions. Part IV, “Dialogue and Deliberation Using College Spaces,” includes three case studies of campus dialogue in spaces beyond the classroom, including student centers, libraries, and residence halls. Part V, “Dialogue and Deliberation in the Community,” contains four chapters about collaborations between colleges and universities and the community to create dialogue spaces (including a chapter on “front porch conversations” in Austin from Suchitra V. Gururaj and Virginia A. Cumberbatch of UT-Austin’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement!). Finally, Part VI, “Dialogue and Deliberation Networks,” contains three chapters detailing cross-institutional networks for resources and engagement. 

7 Models for Dialogue

I have created a snapshot overview of the seven different models for dialogue presented in Creating Space in this infographic (also available online HERE). I include the defining elements of each approach, the stated goals, the facilitator’s role, its origin and genealogy, and sample materials sourced directly from each organization that illustrate their approach. Organizations and materials are hyperlinked in the chart for further exploration. 

I hope that this chart is useful as a quick reference for instructors to compare and contrast the basic structure, goals, and background of a few dialogic models, so that they can explore the model(s) that interest them. Beyond that, here are a few ideas for how instructors might use this resource with students: 

  • Share these models with students at the beginning of the semester and ask for their thoughts and feedback. You might divide a class into 7 small groups and assign each group a model to further research. Groups present their summaries and thoughts on their assigned model to the rest of the class, and the class deliberates together over which model feels most appropriate for the content and aims of the course, balanced with student interests and identities. 
  • Select one or more different approaches to practice over the course of the semester. Share the background, goals, and structures of the model(s) you have chosen and your decision-making process and rationale with students upfront. Create structures for students to provide feedback and reflection on their experiences with each approach you have chosen. 
  • Have student facilitators select an approach to practice themselves as they lead dialogues. 

Are there other approaches to dialogue you have encountered or created? Do you have other thoughts on how to involve students in the process of selecting and/or reflecting on different approaches to dialogue? Please let us know in the comments! 

Next Week . . . 

We will be reading Teaching Through Challenges for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (Storms, Donovan, and Williams, 2020). 

Summer Reading Series: How to Have Impossible Conversations (UPDATE)

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

Title: How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide (published in 2019; $17; available for purchase here)

Authors: Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay

Update June 7, 2021

It’s come to my attention, via a Salon article that my colleague Melissa Biggs at the Humanities Institute shared with me, that both James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian are currently involved in crusades to delegitimize critical race theory and gender studies. According to the article, they also have links to white supremacist networks and have promoted COVID conspiracy theories. 

My first urge was to gut the post entirely. I do not wish to amplify the voices of these authors. I frequently found their tone and rhetoric repellent when I was reading the book, and I find the political beliefs and public behavior described in the Salon article abhorrent. 

As a scholar and teacher of literature, however, I believe that the reader has power. Power to determine for themself what they need texts, and their authors, to do and be for them. Power to reject a text and/or its authors for failing, for whatever reason, to deliver what they need from them. Power to pull meanings out of texts that the author never intended but that are available in the text to be pulled and applied to the reader’s own purposes, which may be very, very different from the author’s (or even the text’s) purposes. 

My post on How to Have Impossible Conversations is an attempt to exercise reader’s power — to find what I can pull out of a text and apply towards my own purposes for dialogue, which are pretty clearly different from the authors’ purposes (as I acknowledge in the original post, the text of which, below, I have not changed at all). I believe that to find bits and pieces of the text that can align, or can be made to align through conscious repurposing, to decolonialist and anti-racist pedagogies is not an endorsement or misreading of the authors. Nor does it (necessarily) erase, excuse, or wallpaper over their harmful ideologies and actions. Rather, it can be an act of resistance against them and those like them. 

If I had been more aware of the authors ahead of reading, I wouldn’t have read the book at all. But since I can’t unread it, I also won’t unwrite my thoughts about it (yet) — just add to them, in light of new information, and also allow them to further develop and evolve in light of further thought and (I hope!) discussion from this community. Maybe this post will end up coming down entirely. Should it?

I would love to hear from you publicly (in the comments) or privately (via email: about your thoughts on any of what I’ve written above or below.

Context of Creation: This is a mass-market text for a broad audience written by a philosophy professor and a mathematics PhD. Its purpose is to “[offer] solutions to the problems of timidity, incivility, fear, and distrust that blight our conversational landscapes” (6). Defining “impossible conversations” as ones that “feel futile because they take place across a seemingly unbridgeable gulf of disagreement in ideas, beliefs, morals, politics, or worldviews” (3), the authors promise to help the reader “learn how to intervene in someone’s thinking and help them change their own mind and how to mutually search for truth” (8).

Context of Reception: I read Impossible Conversations on a plane from Austin to a city on the east coast. I began it in a spirit of agitation; my six-year-old son had been uncharacteristically whiny and uncooperative in the airport, and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the read, anyway. I was intensely irritated by the hyper-confident, corporate sales-pitch tone of the introduction, which I interpreted as stereotypically white and male: the authors assure the reader that they’ve “included exactly what you need to immediately have effective conversations across deep divides” (7) based on “proven, evidence-based techniques” (6). The book felt like it was going to be gimmicky, full of “tips and tricks” to convert a conversation partner cast permanently as less logical and rational than oneself rather than tools for authentic engagement and mutual respect and learning. As I got into the section on building rapport in the first chapter, however, I slowed down, recognizing many of the “tips” as community-building practices I’ve advocated for (and others as good ideas new to me). How is this different from building community? I asked myself. Is it just the corporate-rhetoric connotations of the word “rapport” that I’m chafing at? Is it the “instant results,” one-conversation focus? Does it really matter if the authors are talking about dialogue with a different purpose than (I think) I’m going for? Isn’t it possible that there’s still something of value within this text? I reminded myself that to take an adversarial stance and read (only) to critique and condemn rather than (also) to learn and be challenged is to reproduce exactly the kind of combative discursive engagement I want to unlearn and help students unlearn. My heart rate slowed, my son nestled comfortably into my side, and I read on — continuing to register the book’s missed marks (such as the authors’ citation of exclusively male scholars and dismissal of identity) but open to whatever might be of use. 

Overview of Structure and Content 

The seven chapters of How to Have Impossible Conversations are organized as a series of lists that sequentially build expertise, from the fundamentals of a good conversation for pre-beginners to “master level” approaches to handling ideologues (e.g. “Beginner Level: Nine Ways to Start Changing Minds”). 

3 Thought-Starters for Teachers


“Friendships based solely on religious or political agreement are rarely sustainable, at least until some deeper substance to the relationship is found. In fact, friendships with these bases can be the opposite of sustainable, as people with weak interpersonal ties often become more guarded and warier when small differences in opinion manifest themselves over time. In a relationship built only upon superficial moral markers like religious or political identity, small differences can threaten the only basis the relationship has” (74). 

  • To what extent do you agree or disagree with this idea, based on your own experiences and observations? If not religious and political identity, what (else) constitutes a strong interpersonal tie between people? 
  • What implications does this idea have for the classroom or college campus, where people are both interacting with people different from them in ways they might not have encountered before and forming (often very important) new relationships? 

Golden Bridges 

The authors define a Golden Bridge as “a means by which your conversation partner can change his or her mind gracefully and avoid social embarrassment.” The opposite of ridiculing and shaming, a Golden Bridge is a statement that affirms the other’s inherent desire to be good and do right, not for the purpose of excusing wrong thinking or behavior but in order to make it easier for a person to acknowledge the wrongness of their thinking or behavior and change it. Examples include “I can see where you were coming from,” “There’s so much confusing and inaccurate information out there and it’s so hard to sift through it all,” or “I don’t think you meant to say something offensive.” The authors write, “Golden Bridges are particularly important if someone believes they’re knowledgeable about a specific issue, is deeply morally invested, or faces a challenge to their sense of personal, moral identity” (76-77). 

  • What is your reaction to the notion of a Golden Bridge? Have you responded to students or colleagues with some version of a Golden Bridge before? 
  • What is the relationship between a Golden Bridge and the emphasis on affirmation stressed in Stop Talking
  • How might you integrate Golden Bridges into norms for dialogue or invite students to consider their utility and value? 


“Outsourcing is a broad strategy for turning to outside information to answer the question ‘How do you know that?’ The goal is to help your conversation partner become curious enough to want to know how they can justify their knowledge claims, or to help you realize something you haven’t had access to.” The authors stress that in a tense, emotionally fraught conversation, unsolicited “data dumping,” or references to fact-based evidence, is rarely received well even when the information people are referencing is precise and accurate — which it often is not. Outsourcing, as I choose to interpret it, is a way to slow the conversation down by seeking to draw closer to sources of information about the topic (to echo an idea from Stop Talking). While the authors focus on “experts,” “evidence,” and “counterarguments” in a sort of judicial sense — a quest for empirical, objective truth — I would suggest that part of the outsourcing conversation might be to ask, “Whose voices are missing?” or “Who are the stakeholders here, and where would we go to find the information that each stakeholder might find most important?” Such questions allow for a more nuanced consideration of what constitutes meaningful “evidence” besides/in addition to statistics and other forms of quantitative data. 

  • How do you generally intervene when students make sweeping or unsubstantiated claims in dialogue? Have you encouraged outsourcing before?
  • Thinking of a particular course, if you were to curate an archive of sources for students to refer to during typical conversations, what academic and, especially, non-academic resources would it include besides the texts already on your syllabus? 
  • What about “insourcing” — that is, in which contexts is it appropriate to allow/invite students to be themselves the source of meaningful evidence within a conversation? 

2 Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation 

Set Purpose for Dialogue 

The authors of Impossible Conversations provide a succinct list of the main reasons people choose to engage in a conversation with each other, which I have adapted into an infographic entitled “Why Are We Here? 7 Main Purposes for Dialogue,” available as a PDF HERE (also available online HERE). 

You might explore these purposes with students and ask them when they have engaged in dialogue for each of these reasons in the past. What were those experiences like? Which form of engagement felt most meaningful for them? What behaviors and language were typical for each kind of dialogue? Have students decide collectively what the purpose of their dialogue(s) will be, in general and/or before each new dialogue session. 

Define Terms Together 

Sometimes, the authors write, apparent clashes of ideology are really just superficial clashes of words: “Someone might say, for example, ‘I hate the government,’ when they mean they hate intrusive government, corruption, bureaucracy, concentrated political authority, or regulations that don’t comport with their values. Someone else might claim they like the government when they really mean they want security, stability, social services, and infrastructure. If these two people have a conversation about ‘the government,’ there’s a risk they’ll argue even if they agree about almost every issue of policy. Such clashes are frustrating because they appear to be substantive but are really about the meanings of words” (41). 

Take time before, during, and after dialogue to define important terms that will be, are, or have been in use. This can be simple and top-down: “For the purpose of today’s conversation, ‘diversity’ refers to. . . .” Or it can be process-driven and collaborative, with students contributing definitions of their own, looking up meanings, and engaging in dialogue about what a given term means. Or it can be more meta: Use a tool like Mentimeter to have students explore the connotations a word holds for them by creating a word cloud, and then discuss definitions. Take time in the middle of dialogue to stop and highlight the different ways in which a key word is being used and urge participants towards clarification and consensus around meaning, if necessary. After dialogue, have students describe how their understanding of, or relationship to, a key word in the conversation changed as a result. 

One In-Depth Activity: The Unread Library Effect 

The authors of Impossible Conversations identify a fallacy common among anyone with strong opinions that they dub the “unread library effect” — basically, a tendency to believe that you know or understand much more about a given topic than you really do, because of the access that you have (or exposure you have had) to other people’s expertise. We not only claim intimate familiarity with a topic on the basis of relatively shallow engagement, we also formulate strong opinions about that topic on the basis of this imagined familiarity — like never actually reading that book you bought on sight because you liked the cover and the blurbs on the back, but feeling confident about telling people what a good book it is. Therefore, becoming aware of our own susceptibility to the unread library effect (and where our knowledge, imagined or real, comes from) can help us develop deeper understanding of the issues we care about as well as greater empathy for others’ strongly held beliefs. 

HERE is an activity whose purpose is to guide students to self-awareness about the unread library effect, as well as reflection about the sources from which they derive their knowledge and understanding. It can be done as in-class independent freewriting, at-home writing, in-class dialogue with a partner, or some combination of these. It is designed to be inductive — that is, rather than being introduced to the meaning and purpose of the activity upfront, students are asked to think critically about its purpose at the end (and guess at a definition for “unread library effect”). It is important to stress, though, that the point is not to “catch” people in a state of ignorance or shame them for incomplete understanding. The point is also definitely not to validate one source of information, such as academic research, over another, such as culturally or experientially derived knowledge. Rather, it is to reflect on unacknowledged gaps in understanding. 

The authors of Impossible Conversations also stress the importance of “modeling ignorance” by acknowledging the gaps in your own knowledge and understanding whenever possible, as well as modeling self-reflectiveness around how your own beliefs and ideas have developed (37). Therefore, it would be particularly powerful to participate in this activity alongside your students, preferably early on in the semester in order to establish an atmosphere that allows for vulnerability, not-knowing, and self-awareness. 

Next week . . . 

We will be reading Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education, edited by Timothy J. Shaffer and Nicholas V. Longo (2019)